Archive for March, 2009

I’m a Bay Area native. I lived on Carl Street at Stanyan in the outer Haight that day. I was a tour guide and did a Chinatown tour in the morning. After that, I ran upstairs into the stacks at the main library for some research material, drove across the Bay Bridge to Oakland on an errand and had just gotten home, turned on the World Series and started to wash the dishes when it happened. My one cat ran out through my bedroom window and my other cat ran in. He and I stood in the doorway of my bedroom, looking up at Sutro Tower and watching the bedroom walls cave in and out like a very bad acid experience. When it finally stopped and the building alarm went off, we went out into our backyard and someone from the building behind shouted that the Bay Bridge had collapsed. And that’s how the news travelled, by word-of-mouth from neighbors; news about the fires, about the Cypress structure and where the damage was the worst. We were in the middle of it, but without power, people in New Jersey were more informed than us.

I think the worst thing about the earthquake is that when I was going through it, I just kept thinking that, finally, here’s “The Big One” and it’s going to be over in just a few more seconds and then we are off the hook for another hundred years. But it wasn’t.

I don’t live in San Francisco anymore and I hate being on freeway overpasses.

Jacques Bonet

Sebastopol, California

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Jon O’Bergh is a keyboardist with the Bay Area jazz/funk fusion group Gemini Soul and a composer. A few days ago I came across his story about the earthquake and other events in his life during 1989. He agreed to let me post the part of his story recalling the earthquake, so here it is:

One cloudless October day, during the waning warmth of Indian summer, I was getting ready to leave work when the phone rang. I lingered for a moment at the office door, debating whether or not to answer it. After the second ring, I walked back to my desk and picked up the phone, a decision that perhaps saved my life. A colleague on the other side of campus [of Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills] requested some material and we agreed that I would leave it in an envelope for her to retrieve later at the building entrance. Just as I hung up, the ground started shaking, accompanied by a low rumble. I looked up and saw the fluorescent light fixtures jiggling. At first I wasn’t scared — I’d been through the big 1971 Simi Valley earthquake in junior high — but then the lights exploded with a surge of electricity, emitting sparks and a flash of blue light, while a cubicle divider came crashing over beside me with startling violence.

As the shaking intensified, I thought of a mustang bucking wildly at a rodeo. Was the earth trying to shake something off its back? A section of bookshelves tilted and fell, spilling law books across the floor toward my feet. Anything tall that was oriented parallel to the quake’s north-south motion toppled, yet, oddly, nothing on the desks seemed to move. Only fifteen seconds passed, but it seemed to go on for minutes. When the shaking stopped, people emerged from their offices; fortunately, no one was injured. My hands were trembling as if the quake had entered my body. Outside, the abandoned old house next to our building — a relic that the college had inherited when it bought the property from the orchard farmers who originally owned the parcel of land — was still standing, but I noticed the upper portion of its stone chimney had toppled onto the path that I usually took to my car. Rubble was piled in a heap like a grave mound. If it hadn’t been for that phone call, I likely would have been passing right next to the chimney when the quake struck.

Driving home, the traffic was crawling on the freeway since a section of road had buckled. The crack continued through a sound wall, splitting it apart and leaving a jagged gap. A pall of dust hung in the air, shaken up from the earth. The destruction seemed spread out randomly. When I at last arrived home, nothing in our apartment had been disturbed, although a mile away a hotel had partially collapsed. J.’s stuffed animals were all standing, sheet music was open on the piano, dishes remained secure in cupboards. The only sign that something was out of the ordinary was the wall clock, stopped at 5:04.

By Jon O’Bergh

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This earthquake story comes from the Santa Cruz library’s collection of a handful of stories on the impact of Loma Prieta and its aftermath on its various services. The home page for the collection is here. And, the following story by Fred Ulrich, branch manager at the Boulder Creek Library, originally appeared here.

I was sitting at my desk in the Boulder Creek Library talking on the phone with another member of the staff, Gary, who was in the Central Library. It was a phone with an extra long cord, so I stood up and paced away from the desk while still talking. I heard the rumble and soon found myself under the doorway leading to the circulation desk. I have no recollection of this, but Gary tells me that the last thing he heard before the phone line went dead is me saying “Oh no!”

In one of the first tremendous lurches and from my point of “safety” I saw an entire range (15 feet long and 8 feet high) of books and bound National Geographics crash down on my desk–where I had been sitting a few seconds before. It didn’t slump or slide or cascade or tumble. The entire range slammed down in one thunderous motion. I would not have fared well if I hadn’t had that long phone cord. Yet, I distinctly remember observing the event in a calm and open manner, as if the forces were so immense my personal endangerment was somehow inconsequential.

I saw another staff member, Suzette, dive under a protective shelf, I looked through the dust at the groaning ceiling and just held on. After about 10 seconds I knew this was big and wondered if this was IT, the BIG ONE. I seemed likely that the roof would give way at any moment. I also thought that the redwoods on our deck could crash down on us. Still, I remember being more awestruck than fearful. The event was so dramatic that I saw it with fascination and an odd nuance of delight.

When the shaking subsided I called out to ask if anyone was hurt. There was no reply. I called “Suzette, are you there?” Suzette emerged from her sheltered ledge saying she was o.k. I started to walk into the stacks and a strong aftershock made the floor feel like a boat at sea. There were only 2 patrons in the library at the time, both unhurt and relatively unfazed!

We evacuated the building but then I remembered that my keys were on my desk under the formidable rubble of the collapsed shelving. I gingerly returned to the building and, laying on the exposed side of the shelf which was at a 45 degree angle and resting on my desk, I reached through the shelving and began clearing away the debris to get to my keys. Of course, along came another strong aftershock and this time I did feel fear. Scurrying to the protective doorway until the aftershock subsided, I returned to my digging and found my keys.

Before leaving I took a quick tour of the library to make sure no one else was there. There wasn’t but I noticed something amazing. The goldfish bowl on top of the young people’s desk was still sitting there with goldfish swimming merrily about!

After returning to our parking lot where Suzette sat cross-legged on the asphalt, I noticed the restaurant chimney across the way had collapsed on to a car breaking its windshield. Two teenage girls had been on their way to the library and joined us in the parking lot. We all sat in there with aftershocks coming every few minutes. It’s a strange sensation when the wave travels right out of the ground and into one’s body.

After delivering the young people to their home, I drove cautiously down Highway 9 which was strewn with boulders large and small. Coming into Santa Cruz, I saw the fire and dust from downtown but headed to my home which was partially off its foundation. My family slept that night and the next few in our VW camper.

The following day the maintenance man and I climbed atop the Boulder Creek Library’s very pitched roof to reattach the woodstove chimney which had broken loose. As we crawled slowing along the topmost ridge we defused the tension with dark humor about our prospects up there. But all went well and we’re both still here today.

By Fred Ulrich

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